Yesterday I talked briefly about making sure that your character doesn't go too far to either end of the stereotype spectrum. It's a great method to help make your characters feel more authentic, but there's more than that. Something simple, but easily forgotten, is to make sure that the reader has enough information.
So many times as readers we make the mistake of put our character out there and then being puzzled when our reader doesn't think of them they way we do. That isn't inherently bad, but it can lead to issues when the way the reader imagines them doesn't work with the actions you're having them do.
For example, perhaps we think our 9-5 coffee shop barista is actually a really tough person who knows five different martial arts. Now, there's no reason a barista can't be a kung-fu master in theory, but if we don't specify that, then have them destroy a would-be mugger without breaking a sweat, we might have some issues.
Now, in your mind, of course Bill the Barista can take out five thugs with guns. Maybe you have a great reveal later where a side character finds out he was secretly in a special ops group and thinks of them differently, but until we see that scene, we only have a few things to go on. We know he's a barista. He's not shown doing anything particularly physically demanding or dangerous. Our natural inclination as a reader is to picture an average barista. Without specific details from you, the author, we have to guess. So, what, early to mid twenties? Thinner built? Maybe even a college student? You can't blame your reader if that's the impression they get when you haven't given them more.
The problem comes that you're too close to the character. Too close to the plot. You know everything's that's going to happen and, in the grand scheme, it all works. But down in the trenches, at the level of minutia, there are inconsistencies. You forgot to let us know that he's actually 6'3. That he has broad shoulders that stick out from his barista apron and thick forearms. That's all a given in your head, but it's easy to forget to let the reader in on these things.
So what do you do? Identify these places and work to build out more details of the character without having someone flatly say "Oh yeah, Bill kills three dudes in the war!" Maybe the espresso machine gets jammed and someone can't unstick it. Bill comes over and pops it into place with a quick jerk. Maybe when he's adding cream to someone's latte we get a peek at a Marine tattoo under his sleeve. Perhaps someone orders so much stuff that they need assistance carrying it out, so Bill comes to rescue. They drop a tray of coffees and BOOM! Bill shoots out a hand and catches it all before disaster strikes. Now we have something to work with.
This doesn't mean we aren't surprised when Bill takes down three muggers later. It's still an amazing task, but now we have a frame of reference. What we know about Bill means that this, however fantastic it may be, is not so far fetched as to break our immersion.
I hope that helps somebody out there. If it does, feel free to comment and maybe leave some thoughts on other writing difficulties.
Don't forget to be awesome!
Keep your eyes open for my debut novel, The Paladin.